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GERMAN LANGUAGE

German words you need to know: Die Verschlimmbesserung

Here’s another oh-so typical German compound word, which perfectly captures a feeling or situation you want to describe.  

German words you need to know: Die Verschlimmbesserung
There are no happy faces in a 'Verschlimmbesserung' situation. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

The noun Verschlimmbesserung is a colloquial term depicting the moment when your attempt to improve something only ends up making it worse. The word is a compound consisting of an oxymoron: Verschlimm- from the verb verschlimmern (‘to worsen’), with the prefix ver- indicating change, and -besserung from the verb verbessern (‘to improve’). It can of course be used as a verb too: verschlimmbessern.

A close synonym could be die Verschlechterung, meaning ‘worsening’ or a ‘change for the worse’. But even this doesn’t quite capture the essence of a Verschlimmbesserung.

Die Verschlimmbesserung was even an entry in the Brothers Grimm 1854 German dictionary, but there are records of the word’s usage earlier still, for example in the 1810s.

We could all use this word in our daily lives, from frustrating arguments to governmental plans we may not agree with. Perhaps you’ve found yourself try to make things better in a relationship, only to say something that makes the whole situation worse. 

READ ALSO: Das ist ja mal wichtig: The complete guide to German particles

Along similar lines to a Verschlimmbesserung, you may have heard of the linked phenomenon the ‘Cobra effect’, also known as a perverse incentive, in which an initiative brings about unfavourable results contrary to its original intentions.

The closest word English seems to have as a translation is the rather rare ‘disimprovement’ – doesn’t have quite the same effect as the German word … maybe that’s a Verschlimmbesserung in itself.

Examples:

Die Funktion ist eine komplette Verschlimmbesserung. Sie macht die Sache noch komplizierter!

The function is completely botched. It makes things more complicated!

Die Regierung hat die Lage ganz verschlimmbessert. 

The government has bungled the situation entirely in an attempt to improve things.

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GERMAN WORD OF THE DAY

German word of the day: Belastung

Sometimes things can be too hard to carry - but keep this German word to hand and you may be able to lighten the load.

German word of the day: Belastung

Why do I need to know Belastung?

Because this versatile little word can be found everywhere, from articles about contaminated waterways to discussions about teen mental health.

What does it mean?

Die Belastung (be.last.ung) can mean numerous things depending on its context, but generally it’s used to refer to a “load” or a “burden” of some kind. This can, of course, mean a physical load such as goods on a cargo train, but more often it’s a metaphorical one.

That’s why you may hear politicians in Germany talking about a “finanzielle Belastung” (financial burden) on citizens through inflation, or have a friend write to you about how their hectic new job is “eine Belastung” (a strain). 

Occasionally, Belastung can be a liability or debt, and other times it could be a heavy workload. 

If you hear it in an ecological context, it’s sadly most likely to be referring to pollution or exposure to a toxic substance.

READ ALSO: German word of the day: Beharren

Where does it come from?

The word Belastung appears to come from the noun ‘Last’ in Old High German, which was used to describe something that weighed a person down – in other words, a load. In Middle High German, ‘Last’ could also be used as a measurement to mean an abundance or large quantity of something – again, similar to the English ‘load’.

‘Last’ has the same meaning to this day and can be found tucked away in several German words with similar connotations. For example, as well as burdening someone with a Belastung, you can also free them of their heavy load with an Entlastung. Incidentally, the latter is the word usually used to describe financial relief measures taken by the government. 

Use it like this: 

Ich will an der Universität studieren, aber momentan sind die finanzielle Belastungen zu groß.

I want to study at university, but at the moment the financial burdens are too great.

Mein rücksichtsloser Freund ist eine Belastung.

My reckless friend is liability. 

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